Rock

Five Burning Questions: Lorde's 'Solar Power' Debuts at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart

Lorde
Ophelia Mikkelson Jones*

Lorde

One of the most-anticipated comeback efforts of 2021, Lorde's Solar Power LP debuts at No. 5 this week on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The set moves 56,000 equivalent album units in its first week, including 34,000 in album sales.

Though the first-week numbers are solid, they're down from Lorde's prior album, 2017's Melodrama, which bowed atop the Billboard 200 with 109,000 units moved. And while Melodrama was met with rapturous critical reception, leading to a Grammy nomination for album of the year, the response to Solar Power has been a little more mixed thusfar.

Is the lower-key response to Solar Power fair? And how likely is Lorde to return to the top 40? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. Solar Power debuts at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart with 56,000 equivalent album units moved -- her lowest bow on the chart to date, and down from the No. 1 debut and 109,000 units of Melodrama's first week. Is the showing a disappointment for Lorde, or is it just sort of in line with where she's at commercially in this stage of her career?

Hannah Dailey: I full-heartedly think Lorde just doesn’t give a s--t about charts or sales or any commercial measurement of success. Not only did she forgo traditional CDs to sell her music box inventions (which don’t count toward the charts), but she also sings about it quite a bit throughout the album. Just look at the third track “California”: She literally “breaks up” with fame to pursue a healthier lifestyle away from materialistic obsession. What’s more is that this ambivalence doesn’t feel forced -- because she’s also conceded how difficult it was to turn her back on these things -- but she had to in order to prioritize her wellbeing.

Stephen Daw: I think it's pretty clear that this is likely not what Lorde was hoping for with Solar Power. Seeing album sales reduce by almost half is never a fun thing to see for any artist, especially when that artist is making a comeback after going on hiatus following a critically-and-commercially beloved album like Melodrama.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s hard to decree that this chart debut is a “disappointment” for Lorde, after listening to an album in which she so clearly shrugs off commercial expectation and pop appeal. Solar Power is an insular, ethereal project that isn’t designed for the pop charts (even if there are multiple songs that are catchy as hell), was met with mixed reviews (even if I personally like it more than most)... and still scored a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 chart. Considering the context, there’s no way Team Lorde should view this debut as a letdown.

Kristin Robinson: I think it’s definitely a disappointment. Reception, in general, has not been enthusiastic, and I think that her number 5 placement reflects that. That being said, she doesn’t seem to concerned with chart placement (if she did, I think she would have kept selling CDs instead of replacing that format with eco-friendly music boxes, which do not qualify as album sales for Billboard charts), so maybe this isn’t the best metric to use in judging Solar Power’s success. This album was a big step out of her comfort zone which I commend her for, but it’s a risk that didn’t pay off, sadly.

Andrew Unterberger: It's probably hard for Lorde and her team to write it off completely -- I'm sure any artist would rather see their project fully and widely embraced than not -- but there are asterisks to the lower sales total, between her music box not counting for first-week sales calculations and ticket bundles no longer factoring into the Billboard 200 as they did back in 2017. And as my co-writers have pointed out, this is not an album meant for crossover airplay and arena touring; Lorde's clearly taking a step back from stardom, and that's fine.

2. The critical response to Solar Power has also been somewhat muted, with the set drawing a 69 aggregate rating on the crit-compling site Metacritic -- down from the 91 of Melodarama. Has the more tempered response been fair, do you think, or do you think the gap between perception of the two albums will close somewhat in years to come?

Hannah Dailey: Honestly, no. I don’t think it’s fair to judge an album’s quality by pointing out all the elements it lacks in comparison to a previous record, nor do I think it’s fair to say an album is bad because it’s “too happy” -- both statements I’ve seen multiple times over across different Solar Power reviews. Moreover, Lorde is held to a wildly different standard than a lot of artists, which I suppose is a compliment in itself. She’s always been one step ahead of the game, serving as a pioneer of alt-pop and forging her own sound.

This time, she didn’t carve out new spaces or reinvent anything, but that only feels like an issue because it happens to be something she’s done in the past. All of the aforementioned complaints are based on unmet expectations that Lorde never promised to meet in the first place, and not on and not the body of work itself -- which, while very different from her past albums, is still a gorgeous, honest and thoughtful record.

Stephen Daw: I have to side with the critics here — I like Solar Power, but when you compare it to Lorde's past work (especially Melodrama, which is still one of my favorite albums of the last decade), it lacks the vibrant, alt-pop point of view that made her a household name. The music feels dull and washed-out, while her songwriting doesn't cut to the core the way she's always been able to. If anything, I think that the gap between the public perception of these albums could grow wider over the next few years.

Jason LipshutzMelodrama is a more forceful project than Solar Power, but that discrepancy in urgency reflects where Lorde is at in her life right now -- more at peace with her choices and surroundings, content with letting the rigors of pop stardom slip away to promote her own mental health. The tropical breeziness of Solar Power was always going to be a tougher sell for critics following the hyper-emotional early-twenties fantasia of Melodrama. And while I do think the latter is the more accomplished album, I also think history will be kind to the former.

Kristin Robinson: I think the album was certainly weaker than her previous two projects, so that number is pretty deserved. But I commend her for trying something so out of her comfort zone. I think this record shows her growing pains, marking a departure from the alienated, iconoclastic teen she once was and shows her earnestly attempting to find herself as a woman. I just don’t think she’s found out exactly what that woman looks and sounds like quite yet, which is OK.

When considering Lorde, we must remember how young she was when she started. We, as fans, set ourselves up for disappointment if we expect Lorde to be the same person as she was when “Royals” hit radio. Artists who had nearly massive success really early are cursed in my view. So are teen girl artists. Lorde is all of that. She came out of her first project with a massive target on their back, and at some point she was going to make something that didn’t live up to the hype. I think we are seeing Billie Eilish go through the same thing right now. Both Lorde and Billie are great artists. I think we should give them some grace, and wait to see what they do next.

Andrew Unterberger: It's been a little confusing to me -- largely because I don't see why so many people seem to be judging it based on how much it is or isn't like Melodrama. Of course that was a good album, but it was just one of two that Lorde has made in her career, and honestly I prefer 2013 debut Pure Heroine anyway. Solar Power is an evolution, just like Melodrama was for Heroine, and while it might not be as immediately grabbing (or ultimately as thoroughly engrossing), it's a coherent, thoughtful and lovely album, worth meeting on its own merits. I think time will be kind to it, even if Melodrama remains many fans' go-to.

3. Lorde does not appear anywhere on the Hot 100 this week, with the title track being the lone song from the set to appear on the chart, debuting (and thusfar peaking) at No. 64 in June. Would you have expected any of the songs to have a stronger chart presence? Do you see Lorde returning to the top 40 in the future? 

Hannah Dailey: I only would have expected “Mood Ring” to appear on the chart, given that it’s a single and was slightly controversial. I would’ve maybe thought more people would like “Secrets From a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)” since it serves as a sequel to one of her most beloved tracks, “Ribs,” but I’m not surprised at all that it didn’t chart. As for returning to the top 40, I think she’ll always have the power to reclaim her throne --  but only if she explicitly wants to. Everything she does feels so intentional,  and though she’s absolutely skilled enough to pump out another “Royals” or “Green Light,” if she ever felt like it, it’s simply not the type of music she wanted to make this time around.

Stephen Daw: I thought if any of the songs had a chance at charting, it would be "Mood Ring," one of the rare spots of upbeat pop on the album. That being said, I'm not terribly surprised to see that it didn't make it onto the charts — while it's an objectively solid song, it doesn't quite have that "earworm" factor that lends to the staying power of some of her other chart successes. As for the future, I'm not worried about Lorde — she will definitely be back in the top 40, just not with anything off of this album.

Jason Lipshutz: Give me a radio edit of “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen It All)” stat! No offense to Robyn’s spoken-word outro, but what comes before it represents the album’s most immediately likable pop-rock moment, a warm and catchy jam for the waning days of beach season. Here’s hoping radio PDs try it out in their rotations; Lord(e) knows I’ll be adding it to my Labor Day Weekend playlist.

Kristin Robinson: Honestly, I didn’t find a song on this record that really stood out to me, so I think it’s doubtful. While almost anything is possible when you have the kind of marketing budget she must have, I don’t think this one will produce a hit. Also, I think Lorde is capable of making another hit song, but I don’t think that’s her main goal. I admire that she really makes music on her own terms, and because of that, I don’t see her trying to specifically write a radio hit any time soon.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll admit to being a little dumbfounded that the song "Solar Power" wasn't more, well, warmly received. I'm a little prejudiced, given that it draws inspiration from one of my favorite songs of all time (Primal Scream's "Loaded") and at least carries echoes of another (George Michael's "Freedom '90"), but I also think it's a really smart, fun pop song with the exact kind of frisky-not-flighty summer vibe that I thought would put it over the top the past few months. One of the bigger chart bummers of the year for me that it didn't happen. (Though I can still see her returning to the top 40 before too long -- maybe with a one-off or collab -- she just might not make a priority of staying there.)

4. While the album's co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff has earned his reputation as a pop star whisperer, none of the high-profile sets he's been a primary creative partner on this year (Solar Power, Lana Del Rey's Chemtrails Over the Country Club, St. Vincent's Daddy's Home, Clairo's Sling, his own Bleachers' Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night) have been particularly resounding commercial successes. Has the mainstream drifted away from Antonoff's sound and/or style, or have he and/or his collaborators just shifted their priorities? 

Hannah Dailey: I really don’t think it’s a question of Jack Antonoff’s sound at all. These are all artists with their own ideas and visions, and Lorde has said a few times now that with him, the artist is always in full control. These are all just cases of women making the music they want to make, with Jack helping them see it come to fruition. If there is an Antonoff-related link between all these albums and their commercial successes, maybe it’s just that these artists now care less about being marketable and more about their creative authenticity, and Jack happens to be a producer who understands that.

Stephen Daw: I definitely think it's an issue of shifted priorities. When I look at that list of collaborators, I see a lot of artists who were looking to make deeply artistic statements with their work. But Antonoff also worked on some of last year's most successful albums — he has credits for multiple songs on Taylor Swift's Folklore and Evermore, and he worked as lead producer on The Chicks' fantastic Gaslighter. If anything, I think Antonoff's work here proves that he's extremely versatile when it comes to what kind of product he's looking to deliver.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s an interesting run of albums, to be sure, although I would argue that none of those artists have made “resounding commercial success” their specific calling card. Instead, Antonoff has helped his collaborators hollow out their respective rabbit holes and tumble downward, whether it’s Lorde on Solar Power’s shimmering pop pleasures or Clairo on Sling’s muted folk touchstones. He could produce more hits in the coming years, or none at all -- as long as he helps bring an artist’s musical vision to fruition, major stars will keep dialing Antonoff’s number.

Kristin Robinson: The mainstream isn’t drifting from Antonoff, but I think the artists he likes to work with are far enough into their careers that they are comfortable taking more risks and making less commercial work. Antonoff has always been great at taking what the artist’s vision is and amplifying that, rather than imposing his own style onto it with a heavy hand, so I don’t think we can place much blame on him for the sounds being less mainstream.

Andrew Unterberger: It's a little of both to me. Obviously, these are strong artists with their own visions that he's working with, so it's not like Antonoff is trying to circle-hole any square pegs here, particularly not for any explicitly commercial aims. But it also does happen that the kind of intimate, heart-bursting alt-pop that he does currently specialize in is not particularly in top 40 vogue right now, at a time when bigger dynamics and more propulsive productions are now at the mainstream's forefront. A little bit of a chicken/egg situation, but it's pretty clear that Antonoff is the guy you call right now if you want to make the album you want to make, not the guy who's gonna give you the biggest album of your career.

5. A pop star making an album that defies artistic expectation and is met with less-than-overwhelming commercial returns feels like an increasingly common refrain in recent days. What does the example of Solar Power and other recent albums like it tell you about the nature of pop stardom in 2021? 

Hannah Dailey: I don’t really know if it means much has changed or will change. Overall, perhaps this trend indicates that people are searching for artists who can unify the public with universally loved and uber-relatable anthems, thus creating a market for a new pop act to come along someday soon and succeed by doing exactly that. But in terms of what it means for current pop stars whose albums aren’t really taking the world by storm, I think the trend is just an evolution of stan culture. These artists created their own lanes and will continue to be loved by their own fleet of fans, with the distance between them and casual listeners probably widening over time.

Stephen Daw: I think it says that it all comes down to the fans and their expectations. It's pretty clear to me that a lot (though certainly not all) of Lorde fans were unsatisfied with Solar Power -- they'd waited four years for a new album, and when it finally arrived, it just wasn't quite what they'd been hoping for. For some artists, making a big change and taking some risky liberties can pay off in a major way -- take a look at Olivia Rodrigo's Sour, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 once again this week. Fans did not see a pop-goes-pop-punk album coming from the girl who sang "Driver's License," and yet she has consistently topped the charts since. You can be a pop star and take risks in 2021, just as long as your audience is along for the ride.

Jason Lipshutz: To me, pop stardom is less of a singles-driven game nowadays -- or at least, it can be for certain artists. While A-listers like Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa and Ariana Grande have racked up radio spins over the past year, artists like Billie Eilish, Lorde and Halsey have released bold new full-lengths in recent weeks, all of which carry lofty ambition but none of which rely too mightily on one breakthrough single. And in the same way that smash hits help keep Bieber, Lipa and Grande in the spotlight, Eilish, Lorde and Halsey have all dominated the cultural conversation thanks to their wildly different but all boundary-challenging LPs. There’s never been one way to exist as a pop star, but that’s never felt more true than it does right now.

Kristin Robinson: I can’t help but think that quarantine has had something to do with it. I think artists who have already proven themselves are shifting their priorities from staying on top to making music they are proud of because quarantine gave them some time to reflect. While not all of these albums have been resounding successes, to me, I love to see pop artists place a little more merit on expression and “art” and not about radio palatability. I always think back to how Joni Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t as well-received right away and grew its status as a classic record over time. Maybe that will happen to a couple of these.

Andrew Unterberger: It's more to me about how "pop star" is a much more widely defined term than it used to be. Artists like Billie Eilish and Lorde are pop stars because they've had massive pop hits that have earned them massive pop audiences -- but sustained pop success has never really seemed like a top priority for them, the way it has for ostensible peers like Dua Lipa or The Weeknd. Their stardom (as gauged by most conventional measures) will likely come and go depending on the release but with their loyal followings -- which aren't dependent on radio hits or streaming-friendliness -- they'll still have long, successful careers without ever drifting too far from the spotlight.